Mark Tooley speaks with Joel Looper, author of Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land without Reformation, which comes out in August.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with the pleasure today of speaking with author Joel Looper, a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, about his relatively new book called Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land Without Reformation. Obviously, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr, is a topic of constant interest, and this new book offers some wonderful new insights on the man as a Christian and thinker, especially regarding his time spent studying at Union Seminary in New York City in the 1930s. So, Joel, thank you for joining this conversation, and please tell us why you wrote this book and what are its main themes?
Looper: Well, Mark, thanks for the invitation. This is a conversation that I enjoy having obviously. The framing device that I use in Bonhoeffer’s America is comparing Bonhoeffer to Alexis de Tocqueville. So, Bonhoeffer is a sort of Tocqueville for the American church, specifically the American Protestant church. But I think the Catholics will see some of his criticisms in the Catholic Church too. I wrote this book primarily because I thought that Bonhoeffer’s criticisms of Union and the churches in New York were a little bit too close for comfort. For example, when he came, he said, “There’s no theology here.” Worse, he said, “In New York they preach about practically everything, but one thing that I haven’t heard is the gospel of Jesus Christ.” I mean, that’s provocative and I had to look more deeply into this. Oddly enough, no one had really done that. There’s one book that I’d recommend to Providence Magazine readers on Bonhoeffer and American and that’s Reggie Williams’s book Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus. Otherwise, this topic is relatively untouched as far as book-length treatments. So, I set out to fill that gap.
Tooley: Well, and Bonhoeffer’s observations were similar to Tocqueville in the sense that Tocqueville also found America’s churches to be very practical and pragmatic in there preaching and not very theological.
Looper: In fact, Tocqueville said that American religion was democratic and republican. Of course, he didn’t mean our political parties. But I think Bonhoeffer would have agreed with that. there’s a certain sense of which our religion today is Democratic and Republican in the sense of the political parties. But I don’t want to go too far down that road and get us away from Bonhoeffer.
Tooley: And what other observations did you come across in your research on Bonhoeffer that would be new to our listeners in terms of his impressions of American Christianity?
Looper: What shocked me was finding in this material from 1930 and ‘31 that there is a secularization thesis that Bonhoeffer plays with a little bit. I developed that in chapters three and four of this book. And the historical root of this story that he tells is with John Wycliffe back in 14th century England. And this I suppose orientation toward the self and eventually toward the nation rather than towards the politics of church started among those groups and develops among dissenters and nonconformists in England, who in great numbers came over to America. And so, it really fascinates me. It has made me think of secularization more in terms of what’s happening in the church than what’s happening in society. In other words, not that what’s happening in society isn’t of great importance, but the secularization that’s happening inside our churches is really the foundational matter. I think Bonhoeffer would have been greatly concerned about that too, and he was in his own way.
Tooley: And what exactly did Bonhoeffer mean when he said American Protestant churches were without Reformation?
Looper: He meant that they had not reformed themselves politically according to the word of God. He meant that the gospel was not being preached in America. I mean it’s kind of an astonishing claim, and whether he was fully right about that or not I think is another matter. When he came back in 1939, he did find some examples, one in particular, of a church where he heard the gospel preached. But otherwise, the only place that he claimed to have heard gospel preaching was in Harlem at Abyssinian Baptist Church. Among the white churches, he heard the Social Gospel, to put it that way, which he thought was not the gospel. It wasn’t Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It wasn’t the good news.
Tooley: He was going obviously to upscale, white mainline Protestant Manhattan churches?
Looper: That’s right.
Tooley: Hearing the Social Gospel, which would have been near its peak of influence in the 1930s.
Looper: Yeah. The height of the Social Gospel was with Walter Rauschenbusch, who died in 1918. And in some ways, some people might say the Social Gospel was in decline, however, you’re entirely right, the principles behind it had been absorbed into American Protestantism even with Reinhold Niebuhr who taught Bonhoeffer at Union. The ground level assumptions about what Christianity was were liberal, and by that I mean that the question is: how do we make the best that we can of our political community, which is America, and secondarily, the beloved community, which is older parlance more or less for the international community. Sort of glorifying the international community. Harry F. Ward who was at Union at that point is as pure an example of the Social Gospel as you’ll find. He founded the ACLU. And these sorts of people could say with Ward that we need to put metaphysical matters on the shelf until we’ve solved ground level social concerns, because what else is God for?
Tooley: And Bonhoeffer’s views of Union Seminary, were they very similar to his views of Manhattan mainline Protestant Christianity? And in particular, what was his relationship with Reinhold Niebuhr, his professor?
Looper: They were similar. His relationship with Niebuhr is complex. Bonhoeffer knew how to use a good connection. When he needed to get out of Germany in 1939, he called on Niebuhr to try to help him, and Niebuhr did. At the same time, when he was Niebuhr’s student in a couple of classes in 1931, Niebuhr didn’t appreciate much that Bonhoeffer had to say. He had very Lutheran and very Barthian theological presuppositions, which to sort of channel or paraphrase Niebuhr’s criticisms, had no social effect. He said at one point in the marginalia that he put in one of Bonhoeffer’s papers, “In making grace as transcendent as you do, there’s no real effect in the world. So, what’s the point?”.
Tooley: It’s interesting because often the three of them, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Niebuhr, are lumped together as neo-orthodox, but, in fact, there were many distinctions among them, weren’t there?
Looper: That’s right. One of the most important things I think for Bonhoeffer scholars in this book is that there’s been discussion about Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Niebuhr over the years, and I think it’s clear to most people studying Bonhoeffer that there was a significant divide. I spend a good bit of time making that divide explicit and showing just how deep it runs it. The divide really goes all the way down to core theological assumptions.
Tooley: And how do you describe that divide?
Looper: Well, Niebuhr would begin with humans and their need for God, and Bonhoeffer would begin with Christ and revelation. It’s really as simple as that. And Bonhoeffer tried to communicate this to Union students in a variety of ways. He called Barth’s theology, for instance, “genuine Christianity.” With the implication that, of course, their teachers, the students’ teachers at Union, were not professing genuine Christianity but something else. At one point he called these folks at Union, “adherents of Protagoras,” which is a bit dramatic, but I think we take his point.
Tooley: Niebuhr would later, if I recall correctly, after Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, valorize Bonhoeffer and perhaps understate their theological differences. Is that fair to say?
Looper: I would say that’s fair. There was a letter that was published, that Niebuhr published, in The Christian Century after Bonhoeffer died, and I think it was useful. It was useful to Niebuhr, it was useful to all kinds of people, to remember those commonalities. They had just fought, in a certain sense, on the same side of a war in Niebuhr’s mind, even if Bonhoeffer wasn’t really fighting that war in the same way. So, I think Niebuhr’s feelings about Bonhoeffer and how he remembered their relationship, their brief relationship, was understandable. I think he also just didn’t take Bonhoeffer’s theology seriously.
Tooley: In essence, too otherworldly for him?
Looper: That’s right. He was impractical, he was unpragmatic, and Niebuhr simply had no time for it.
Tooley: And of course, Niebuhr by the time he meets Bonhoeffer has abandoned his previous pacifism, which Bonhoeffer would stick with at least well into World War II, perhaps up until his at least complicity in the plotting against Hitler?
Looper: That’s right, and as far as Bonhoeffer’s pacifism, I’d just point out that he does speak in ethics of taking on guilt rather than justifying, oh, all this is implicit of course for viewers and readers who have read Ethics. But Bonhoeffer doesn’t mince words about the taking on of guilt in these actions.
Tooley: Violent actions.
Looper: Yes, in these violent actions. And Niebuhr would have had no problem with that. Pacifism for Niebuhr was in service of society, of the American community primarily. He thought that that was the best way to serve his nation. And that’s why his politics changed every ten years, because he saw that community differently. Bonhoeffer’s politics didn’t really change his entire life, and that’s because he was focused on a different core community, the Church.
Tooley: Did Bonhoeffer regard himself as a German patriot?
Looper: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think Larry Rasmussen has spoken of it; he wrote a book twenty years ago that, perhaps longer ago than that, that deals with the uses of Bonhoeffer in American patriotism. And Bonhoeffer wanted, when he went back to Germany in ’39, he went back in order to rebuild the church, and I think it’s fair to say his society, after the war. He didn’t feel like he would have a right to participate in rebuilding Germany if he stayed in America. And for what it’s worth, I’ll say two other things on this point, I think Bonhoeffer’s aristocracy and inherited sense of responsibility for his fellow Germans played a huge role in the way that he saw his country. Secondly, a sort of subsidiary point to that, the survival of German theology and culture and church all sort of fell under that umbrella for him. He felt a great responsibility toward his people in that sense, despite the fact that the church was his primary community and not the nation.
Tooley: And then finally, Joel, obviously there have been various American perspectives on Bonhoeffer, and those on the political and theological right have tried to claim him for themselves and those on the left, likewise. Where do you come down?
Looper: I have written on this; this is a slippery question, but it’s a very good question. Eric Metaxas has used Bonhoeffer’s name to support Donald Trump and even to some degree support Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged. Also, Charles Marsh, who, unlike Metaxas, is a very, I think in some ways, careful scholar of the ‘60s and he’s written some important works on Bonhoeffer. But, as I read Marsh, he portrays Bonhoeffer like an American social activist, just as Metaxas portrays Bonhoeffer as an American evangelical. And he was neither. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran who’s coming out of an aristocratic background. So, in a certain sense, Bonhoeffer was very conservative socially, but that does not mean that he would fit neatly into our conservative politics. Far from it.
Tooley: Joel Looper, author of Bonhoeffer’s America, thank you for this conversation, and I look forward to reading your book.
Looper: Mark, thanks for the opportunity.